The Search for Definition

One of the ways I defined myself in middle school was writing timed, rhymed poetry on a topic chosen by a peer. Me classmates considered it something of a superpower- a handy party trick I could pull out at a moment’s notice, often using the topic itself as an acronym that began each line. They would then take a copy of the poem for themselves, sometimes even place bets on whether or not I could complete a piece, say, on leprechauns in three minutes. I earned my fair share of quarters and acclaim.

This never propelled me into a space of social acceptance outside of, “Shawna is the one who can write.” The pieces I jotted were pure whimsy. I know. They are all hand-recorded on journals upstairs. I treasured each piece for the attention it brought me, those rare shifts away from the question of what I was to the measure of what I could do. I wrote odes for boys to give to girls. I wrote stories. Everyone wanted to be paired with me during the creative literary assignments in our English classes. I was happy to elbow them out of the way and rub the show, doing my work down here and there to include empty statements about the love of basketball or glorying reflections on parent-worship.

It was a small town.

Heck, it was a small state, as I came away with several state accolades for both writing and grammar despite that I can’t edit a sentence. I won monetary awards, was prized by the school system, loved by English teachers, but not enough for them to step in when they saw me tormented by the same peers who would pay for my written words to pass off as their own.

A friend will always be
a friend
Though anger may occur,

But once they have become
Your friend,
They’ll stay your friend for sure.

Some people act like they’re
Your friends,
But really aren’t at all,

They just let you think
They are,
And then they let you fall.

~Age 12

Intelligence will set you apart. Ethnicity will keep you apart. I spent my childhood fractured.

My skin was too dark, my religion wrong, my hair too thick and wild. I was too beautiful, but I was also a monster, and so I learned to hate myself, but not in the ways my town intended.

My peers were little more than parrots. They taunted me constantly for being less, less because I was more. They instilled in me a hatred for White, which was quite the opposite of their intention. They taught me that anything is better than plain, vanilla, blank. And when I moved away, I carried with me a certainty that I was not White and never could be. I found others whose skin were mixed palettes, blacks or browns. I tried to immerse.


But, despite being told in no uncertain terms that I was a hard and firm “Other,” that too was rejected with a change of physical place. I was left facing a strong distaste for anyone bearing the color of my tormentors, and struggling to find my identity when I was summarily lumped into the offending category of White.

To Be Continued.

The Ways You Have Failed Me

As expected, my public confessions of abuse resulted in an emotional barrage akin to a hurricane. The response was so swift and fierce that I was left breathless. It arrived via text message and frantic, tear-and-shallow-breath-filled phone calls. I read. I listened. I paused. Were the allegations true? Was I an emotionally unstable child in a woman’s body acting unfairly? Were my experiences the manufacture of an overactive imagination, my admissions false and vindictive? The accusations battered me. I shed my own tears, but I remembered my goals, assessed whether or not I was meeting or defeating them. I decided that, no, I was not outside the boundaries I had drawn to maintain my self-respect and also, no, I was not misremembering.


Abusers don’t want their victims to remember. They want to control our minds the way they control our pain. In the case of my parents, my abusers are deeply ashamed. It is tragic that they were abusers because they aren’t anymore, with the exception of the occasion grappling burst of gaslighting or intimidation. They don’t want me to remember because they don’t want to remember. But before that, they wanted to control my experience. Even after the hurting stopped, the pain persisted in the form of crippling and defining self-doubt. Into adulthood, I believed the hurting was earned, that I was at fault, that I was a person who deserved to be subservient to pain.

There is incredible power in a name. That is a fantasy trope-you control what you can label. Just as my behavior was molded by flat out denials that any abuse was happening, that I had provoked my own torment and it was thereby deserved, my recovery was shaped by the term for why I suffered flashbacks, irritability, anxiety and dissociation; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not something you can bounce back from, but great healing is possible. For me, that took the form of learning to remain present and conscious, first through traditional therapy, yoga, Shambhala meditation, training in energy work (Reiki), a women only gift circle, and, finally, non traditional therapy. During this long, curving process, I learned more words, gaslighting and intimidation among them.

Knowing those words protected me. When shit got hard, I stayed present and conscious, I remembered those words, and I did not let their use alter my course. Recognizing my own strength and employing it is liberating.

But it is also painful. Every word I write on this topic is a humiliating reminder to parents that worked to change. As a parent, I myself know the hurt of a child’s anguished litany after years of doing my absolute best. I have heard the words in many ways from my own child, “Mom, here is a list of the ways you have failed me.”

I believe there is something here, unexplored. How can I love parents who treated me with such disrespect? How can I disrespect parents who treated me with such love? I have no answers. Only the mantra I have brought to my own parenting: if you don’t want people to know you have done it, don’t do it. Words and actions, once performed, belong to those who receive them. We are no longer free to edit and shape. We must accept, reflect and hope.

Since my opening letter, my mother has explored my boundaries. She has wondered what I will share. I know she would love if I chose not to write on this topic again. At least, she has requested, could I use a pen name?

I understand. I had the incredible fortune once to sit with a woman named Cetti. Cetti heard the crack in my heart when I admitted that I wanted to hurt my child. I was shocked by my admission, but she was not. She sat with me while I cried and shook with fury at the legacy my parents had left me. I felt like a volcano seconds from eruption, and I considered my parents the tenders of my molten core.

Cetti said we all find fault in our parents. Valid or not, she advised me to let go of the rage. She said that road was never ending, and as a parent I knew it to be true. We all carry a family legacy of failings. If I blamed my parents for my parenting, l would have to blame my grandparents for their parenting, and so it would go until the dirt of every grave of every ancestor was churned and muddied with the plaintive, resentful, “Why?”

“Or,” was Cetti’s implication, “you can start from now.”

Okay. Yes. Now. That makes sense. History is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but now belongs to me.

Healthy Eating During Ramadan

*This post was contributed by my sister-in-law, Cheryl Ainslie-Waldman, who now has a PhD in Nutrition from University of Minnesota, back in 2009. It appeared on a blog Jehanzeb Dar and I co-published called Islam on My Side (now someone else’s blog). I like to repost this every year because the information is important, especially during a summer fast! Cheryl recommends increasing your liquid intake this year as the days are hot and long. Pay attention to that third paragraph for some tips on caffeine and juice intake while fasting. Please post questions in the comments section, and Cheryl will do her best to respond.

Hello, my name is Cheryl, and I am Shawna’s sister-in-law. I am a foods and nutrition student at Purdue University, and Shawna asked me to provide some dietary advice for the month of Ramadan. I hope to offer good advice to meet all nutritional needs and take care of the body during this time of fasting. All recommendations are for a typical 2000-calorie diet and can be modified to meet individual needs or preferences.

Pre-Dawn Meal
At the before sunrise meal, include most of the protein for the day. Protein is digested more slowly and will help maintain blood sugar throughout the day. Rapid rises and falls in blood sugar will result in increased hunger, irritability, and fatigue. Refined carbohydrates should be limited during this meal to avoid problematic changes in blood sugar. Include 4-6 ounces of lean meat, such as eggs, turkey bacon, or white-meat chicken. Beans or hummus are also good protein choices for breakfast. (Beans also count as vegetable servings.)

It is also important to include at least 4 cups of fluid during the first meal. Water, tea, coffee, and juice all contribute to fluid intake, but I would caution against drinking too much caffeine as it is an appetite stimulant and can also cause decreases in blood sugar. One hundred percent juice is a good source of nutrients but is also a concentrated source of sugar. Try to limit juice to one cup during this meal.

Fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy should also be included in this meal. Aim for at least 3 servings of fresh fruits or vegetables. One serving equals 1 medium piece, ½ cup raw, or 1 cup of leafy vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are a good source of fluid, fiber, and a balance of nutrients that will help to sustain energy. Whole grains are also a good choice for breakfast; try to eat at least 3 servings of grains, like oatmeal, whole wheat bread, or whole grain cereal. One serving of grains equals 1 ounce, which is usually 1 slice of bread, ½ cup of cooked cereal, or 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal. The meal should also include 1-2 servings of low-fat dairy foods. One serving of dairy equals 1 cup of milk or yogurt or 1-½ ounces of cheese.

Fat contributes to satiety or a feeling of fullness, so it is a good idea to incorporate a moderate amount during breakfast. The healthiest fats come from vegetable sources, like olive oil, canola oil, or soft-tub margarine. Fry an egg in some olive oil, and spread some margarine on whole wheat toast. This will help prolong the energy from breakfast throughout the day.

In summary, the pre-dawn meal should include:
• 4-6 oz. lean protein (meat or beans)
• 4 c. fluid
• 3 servings of fresh fruits or vegetables
• 3 servings of whole grains
• 1-2 servings of low-fat dairy foods

The following is a sample meal following these guidelines:
• 2 egg omelet with ¼ c. each mushroom and spinach and 1 ½ oz.
part-skim mozzarella cheese
• 2 slices turkey bacon
• ¼ c. hummus with ½ whole wheat pita
• 1 c. oatmeal with ½ c. blueberries
• 1 medium banana
• 1 c. skim milk
• 1 c. coffee
• 1 c. orange juice
• 2 c. water

After-Sunset Meal
At the evening meal, it is very important to regain fluid losses from fasting. This meal should include an additional 4 cups of fluid and should emphasize vegetables because of their fluid content. Try to eat at least 4 servings of vegetables and 1-2 servings of fruits. Vegetable-based soups are an excellent choice for this meal. Try bean or legume-based soups for extra protein and fiber, which will promote satiety.

An additional 5 grain servings will help stabilize blood sugar. Having something sweet for dessert will also help sustain blood sugar throughout the night but eating too many sweets will have the opposite effect. The important thing is to make up for lost nutrients from fasting, not lost calories. A good dessert would be a few stuffed dates, oatmeal raisin cookies, or a nut-based confection. An additional 1-2 servings from the dairy group will also be needed to consume a total of 3 for the day.

In summary, the meal to break the fast should include:
• 4 c. fluid
• 4 servings of vegetables
• 1-2 servings of fruits
• 5 servings of grains
• 1-2 servings of dairy

The following is a sample meal based upon these guidelines:
• 2 c. black bean soup
• 12 whole grain crackers
• 1 c. tomato salad with olive oil and 1 ½ oz. feta cheese
• 1 whole wheat pita
• ½ c. hummus
• 5 dates
• 2 oatmeal raisin cookies
• 2 c. herbal tea
• 2 c. water

Eating During the Night
The previous guidelines included all the food servings needed for the day. If you happen to wake up hungry in the middle of the night, choose a small snack that combines protein and whole grains, like bread and peanut butter. Try to not get in the habit of eating a great deal in the middle of the night.

If you are continually hungry during the night, one helpful tactic may be to break up the first meal into two smaller meals. Eat a few choices, go back to bed, and eat the remaining choices during the second meal before sunrise. It is important to not “double-up” and overeat because of eating during the night.

One Final Note
There are endless choices of meal combinations following these guidelines. Increasing the variety of foods will help balance the nutrients that you are eating. Feel free to switch around the foods from meal to meal if it will better suit you. Remember to feed your body well.